The Science of Beauty: Aesthetics

Art is considered as the core and key to culture. Culture is very important in the human life, as it is the final analysis of the values, which can be seen in human life in a variety of ways. Science, under its own constraints does not take up the question of values so vital for life. So, we need a philosophy with free thought for a deeper probe and understanding of art. This is aesthetics. 

Aesthetics is not separated from psychology, sociology and cultural context of art. The importance of Aesthetics is to create a form in art. Form has its law of beauty and balance, rhythm and harmony. The human race learnt to create a form before it learnt to ideate a thought. Even the laws of reason flow from the laws of beauty. 

Aesthetics is the philosophy of the beautiful. The beautiful, whether it is graphic or musical, dynamic or static, whether a divine (or natural) or human creation, from solid architecture and sculpture to the finest nuances of abstract art and poetry, must involve an element of perceptual experience, i.e. the beautiful is perceived. The modus-operandi of conveying beauty is aesthetics.  

'A thing of beauty is joy forever.' It is a poetic utterance of great charm, and is good as far as it goes. But to define the thing of beauty and joy that lasts forever is not so easy. 

As we know that, perception is not a small matter to deal with. We perceive color and form, a sensuous quality of object; or, so we think and feel. But soon the sensuous element begins to affect the perceiver, and the qualities of form like balance, harmony, rhythm, proportion, and movement start flooding the mind-body complex. This happens when we consciously view Natraja, Christ on the cross, or Yakshini in a dance Mudra. 

In India, every form is a dance form and its dynamism is called Zaya (rhythm) which fills the living frame. But it was a little difficult in the West, where the stress was on harmony and balance, clarity and coherence for cultural reasons; another reason for its stress was on the rational nature of humans. 

The perceiver is raised to the level of experiencing the timeless and the boundless. Aesthetic perception thus spreads from the sensuous to the supra-sensuous, from word to wordless as in poetic experience.

Since perception is the essence of aesthetic experience, it is easy to imagine that it has to do with the sensory organs, the cerebral and autonomic nervous systems, the hormonal and glandular feedbacks, in short, with the entire mind-body complex. The beautiful thing may please the eye or ear, or stir up deep memory-deposits and imagination. The really beautiful experience is one that scratches the lurking, deep, hidden yearnings of the soul.  The perceiver may cry in agony of a tragedy, or laugh at the nonsense, feel in his flesh the sweetness of love, melody of music, or shiver in holy terror. There is complete resonance, as it were, in the psycho-organic life in a profound aesthetic experience.

The Present Scenario

The universality of Aesthetics as philosophy of art is the master note in the current scenario. Aesthetics studies the nature of its laws in the wide context of life. It discovers that forms are common to life and all its manifestations whether art or social organizations, brain or body, or for that matter, to all human and natural creations. The cosmic creations spring from the will to beauty, will to form, will to create. 

Now the word philosophy is not to be dreaded. It is a way of acquiring knowledge and truth like science. In science, we start from observation of facts and events, do experiments and use instruments where needed, and from the data which we acquired we proceed to generalize, to infer, to verify and establish laws. In this we strive to be exact. But in doing so we impose upon ourselves restraints and conditions, and the kingdom of imagination is not allowed as it needs complete freedom of flight.

In philosophy the human mind enjoys full freedom of flight of imagination and thinking. The relation of aesthetic activity to culture is intimate and vital. Culture is the quest for values, and is reflected in all human sensitivities. Art cultivates them. All refinement and elegance, sense of decorum and decency are traceable to form and its laws of balance and harmony of rhythm and proportion. Even the values like tragic, comic, ugly, horrible are considered as negative in art but are derived from form. The laws of form are laws of beauty.

Art, in the simplest form, means to create, to do, and to express. Man creates a form, or does something clever, or he expresses his meaning and motive. This calls for skill, and dexterity. If what a man creates, and does, has a lasting value of joy for others, it becomes a work of aft. This work is called beautiful. 

A work of art is thus full of social significance. It is a community phenomenon. And for the same reason, aft becomes the core of human culture. From the dateless past, man has been creating forms, doing marvelous things and expressing his profoundest thoughts and feelings. 

An individual artist becomes the voice of  the people and articulates what is his understanding in the deepest regions of the mind. 

We have today sociology of art and we are moving towards a psychology of art. Even science and technology in all its applications do not feel shy of using the laws of form, the laws of beauty and balance etc. for the simple reason that these are rooted in all action and mechanism. Beauty is the truth of all that lives and moves and has its being.

The other is the folk art, the people's art which flows as the eternal stream of sweetness and beauty, full of primitive symbols of life. It adapts to change but never dies. Cave and rock paintings are being taken good care of. These are not as crude as they were once supposed to be. These are not just relics of the past, but are relevant to us in the present and for the future.

The author thinks that art begins with doing, making and being. The Greek work of art is ‘techne’ which means doing.

In Indian aesthetics, we must begin the study of arts in the context of Indian culture. Art supplies form to culture, and culture in its turn supplies content and intent to art. The two are inseparable. 

Perspective on Aesthetics

What we perceive is a 'form,' a whole, a ‘smagra’, a creation of the autonomous psycho-neural processes. An object as such is unknown to us except through organization of sense data into a form. What lies at the root of form perception is thus aesthetic activity. As a form creating activity, it is basic to mind-body system. If the form arouses psycho organic resonance and activates it for the realization of the principles of form, balance harmony, and rhythm; it is the form of a beautiful object, an aesthetic reality. An experience of beauty thus can be not only joy giving but a life preserving exercise. It is no exaggeration to say that beauty preserves life within itself. 

Beauty and Thought 

Beauty is thus more primordial than thought. One would be tempted to say that art was born when the animal moved towards becoming man, the homo-sapiens. For ages he lived close to nature. When man breaks from nature, his culture begins, for then he starts acting on his own rather than re-acting to internal and external stimulations. Master of his own destiny, he begins shaping stones, to act on them, to work with them, so as to impress them with his idea, intention and image, and finally, he is pleased with his creation-a stone image. It might have been the earliest of the early stone age (Paleolithic age) when forming, fashioning, creating, impressing and expressing started. All these functions underlie art, which, in Greek, means doing. 

It means the Paleolithic man was an artist, par excellence, before he was a thinker. It sounds quite sensible to define the primitive man as an aesthetic being, a form creating animal.  

He was not only a form creating animal, but also loving his form-creations for their own sake. This is what we call beauty of art, or better still, an aesthetic reality, and aesthetic enjoyment. 

A Thing of Beauty

Beauty is the love of a thing for its own sake. A thing of beauty has a form and an order, all springing from the brain-body complex. At the perceptual level, it is a feast of colors, a rhythmic dance of lines, a pleasing harmony of parts woven into patterns. If it is a melody, it is a feast to the ears. It suggests, touches, tastes and gives fragrance. The living system resonates with suggestions. Time, distance and causation are all suggested and felt. In intent and content, in impression and expression the thing of beauty becomes lovely in itself. Love is a value in itself as the supreme source of delight. A creative artist, human or divine, transfigures a thing of beauty and its turn, a thing of beauty transforms a perceptual experience into an experience of beauty, a pure joy of perception, which is the original meaning of the Greek word: aesthesis. Beauty makes one forget other things, at least for some time. Art transports the soul to unknown spheres. The method that art applies is beauty. The complete study of the details of artistic beauty is aesthetics. 

The fusion of intent and content, of the inner and outer dimensions of form, or for the matter of that, the fusion of the mind and matter, is so complete in a thing of beauty that an onlooker is not able to comprehend and exhaust its loveliness, which increases with each contemplation. Raymond Bayer calls it "the aesthetic object," "a strange composite of Self and Thing, a compound that appears initially and by its very nature inseparable." In the building that is Taj Mahal, beauty and form are inseparable. 

Nature and Scope of Aesthetics 

There is always a controversy, to the origin and etymology of Aesthetics. The term was used in the present form by Baumgartner, a German art philosopher. Its Greek etymology suggests that it originally meant 'perception,' to which Baumgartner gave a new significance: aesthetic experience of perceptual qualities of an object of art. Aesthetics thus came to signify the science of the beautiful, studying the nature, meaning and value of a work of art. 

When we speak of art, beauty and joy, we speak them in the same breath. Art refers to creation. The creator is the artist. The beautiful is the created object, and beauty, its quality and excellence. If the created object yields joy of perception, it may rightly be called an aesthetic object. But all creations of art need not give joy of perception. Some art is language, and speaks to us. Some art is symbolic like the hieratic art, which embodies a profound meaning to the worshipper, not so communicated through words of language. Some art involves abstraction and distortion of forms for effect not for joy. Some art may be positively repulsive and cause pain. The realm of art from the most primitive Pacific and African regions through the cave-carvings of hunters and cannibals up to the high tides the world civilizations and now to bizarre modern art, is too vast for a single formula, or a single format of Aesthetics. Man's creativity knows no limits, and forms and functions of art are boundless.

Aesthetic Dualism : Content and Form, and their Functionality

To some, like I.A. Richards, the core of art is its content, and there is no limit to its variety. There is no such thing to him as the transmutation or ‘poetization’ of experience in art, and "a contemplative and aesthetic attitude" is a complex myth. And, if content is all in a work of art, it need not always be beautiful and joy giving. As the mood of an artist changes, he may create ugly and abominable creatures. The form does not transmute the content.  

On the other side there is a group of art critics believing that content is nothing in art. B. Croce leads them. They hold that "content of art is of no aesthetic importance. Beauty is expression and nothing more." S. Alexander goes to the extent of saying, "Any object is available for beauty if it is treated beautifully." And, further, "It is clear enough that the beauty of art has nothing to do with the vice and virtue of its subject."

Aesthetic dualism of content and form does not stand because in this way the meaning of art and substance of beauty is missed. It is the organic oneness of self and thing in a work of art that baffles the mind and pleases the soul. 

Beauty is what is beautifully treated. Artistic treatment means the mastering of the content-form anti thesis and dualism. Says George Mehlis in his Aesthetic Problem of Distance: "Each work of art is based on the original contrast between form and content, which is mastered and brought to rest by the artist. The aesthetic problem lies in the subject object relation of the aesthetic reality."

Aesthetic philosophy thus studies the significance of art objects treated beautifully by creative artists, in a moment of spiritual furor and ferment, are beautiful. By such treatment an object (content) acquires a form and aesthetic significance. 

E. Kant and his school thought that the beautiful is a distinct category, a form of aesthetic feeling. Aesthetic studies the aesthetic reality, form and function of beauty, the nature of communication and creativity, and above all the nature of beauty experience as a value in itself.

  1. The nature of beauty, or, aesthetic reality: Art philosophers, creative artists, art critics and the common men, have all to ask questions as to the nature of a work of aft, and the formal principles of beauty.
  2. The nature of aesthetic experience: In India, for example rasa or ‘ananda’ is the man himself, his inmost truth and reality, his self. Rasa bodies forth, as it were, in ‘rupa’, the sensible form of the supra sensuous essence. It is metaphysics of beauty. At a later stage, the psychology of art is formulated. It equates beauty-experience to an aesthetically caused feeling.
  3. The nature of aesthetic causation and communication: Several concepts are discussed under it. Transmutation or transformation of nature in art, Bharata's theory of ‘Vibhava’ or aesthetic causation, the nature of suggestion, ‘Dhvani’ or Empathy or Hridaya Samvada, such mental activities as myth making, symbolisms, dreaming, free fantasy, psycho-organic resonance etc.
  4. The nature of aesthetic function: What does beauty do to us? Is it to satisfy the creative urge? To please? To express? To impress? To pacify? To energize? To liberate man from his internal bondage and free him from psychic complexes? To cleanse him by emotional discharge or catharsis? To represent, to copy and to mimic? To idealize? To symbolize? Is aesthetic experience healthy or morbid, ethical, amoral, or immoral? Aesthetics examines the validity of these questions and answers given to them within its philosophical frame of reference.
  5. The cultural context of beauty: Beauty is a value, and as such it is born in a milieu of society and culture. As the core of culture, aesthetic activity reaches history, religion and science and all .aspects of a living civilization. The sense of beautiful is a product of social environment.
  6. Aesthetics as related to other disciplines: As individual and social phenomena, art has common frontiers with many disciplines. For example, psychology studies the workings of the mind, its depth and dimensions. Rudolph Amheim told that we are moving towards a Psychology of Art and evolving a unified theory of art. It comes closest to subjects like Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. in studying optics, vision and hearing, the functioning of sensor motor mechanisms. Aesthetic philosophy does not deny itself the advantages of scientific knowledge or the advancement in meta physical or meta psychological speculations from Kant's Transcendentalism to Kierkegaard's Existentialism, or to Freudian-Jungian Meta-psychology. 
  7. Classification of art: Several classifications have been proposed, each with its own rationale e.g. useful arts and fine arts, plastic and graphic arts, visual and musical arts, static and dynamic arts. There is a notion of literary arts also. Decorative and joy giving artistic skills come under purview. The empire of artistic activity spreads over architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, drama and poetry, designs and drawings, motifs and mosaics, expressive symbols and calligraphy; in short, all forms in and through which formative will of mankind sought to manifest itself. In India, Vatsyayana  enumerated sixty-four forms of art. As a discipline in its own right, aesthetics is as light giving and fruit bearing as all disciplines are. To a disciplined mind, its study can open up vistas of joy and beauty. There is nothing more beautiful than the science of the beauty. 

References and Background Reading:

  1. Metcalf, R. T. An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain's Raj. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  2. Subramanyan, K. G. Moving Focus: Essays on Indian Art. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2006.
  3. Sinha, C. P. and U.C. Dwivedi (Eds). Appreciation of Indian Art: Ideals and Images. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2005.
  4. Tripathi, Radhabhallav. Indian Aesthetics Revisited, University of Poone, 2006.
  5. Rayan, Krishna. The Lamp and the Jar: Exploration of New Horizons in Literary Criticism/Essays by Krishna Rayan. Edited by Krishna S. Arjunwadkar. New Delhi, Sahitya Akademi, 2002.   


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 4003      Comments: 2

Comment The above article is, quite evidently, a scholarly write-up. I appreciate the writer's scientific approach on on this subject. I have read many short essays and views of experts on this subject, but I find a thorough & detailed analysis on it only herein. Beauty is usually considered a topic of spontaneity and is said to deal with the unique responses to a single stimulus by different individuals, which are, in almost all instances, beset by vageries of human nature.
In contrast, this article seems to have been written after full research, reasoning & a deep understanding of the topic; providing a perfectly-sound empirical dissertation of sorts. Modern readers give heed to any subject only on its authencity & scientific approach, and i'm positively inclined to believe that it is here that the author succeeds while many others fail: the satisfaction of scientific validity to every thing mentioned in the write-up comes as a welcome change to the amateurish fashion of writing that the blogspace-boom has so boastfully ushered in.

An engaging read at the very least.

Shailbala Misra
22-Feb-2012 16:01 PM

Comment I enjoyed reading this article; having said that, it reveals a personal appreciation of the article. Let me expand. For example, you say: 'In the building that is Taj Mahal, beauty and form are inseparable.' But is it rather not the case that the visual perception of the Taj is so described, and then ascribed to being the material property of the Taj? Aesthetic experience is in the perception not in the object perceived: thus, I may discern aspects about the very same Taj that reduce its aesthetic quality in my perception: the corrosion the marble edifice has sustained, for example; thus, it becomes the Taj from a distance that is said to be beautiful. Or let me swiftly change the example - to the aesthetic experience of ballet. There are people who are enthralled by a ballet performance, calling it the perfect aesthetic experience - but on a level of personal perception; someone else might find the same ballet defective as an aesthetic experience, human movements awkward even at their best, again on a level of perception. It is strictly incorrect to say that the Mona Lisa is the work of art that is admired - rather is it the perception it affords: look too closely, and you will discern faults that render it defective . The aesthetic experience tolerance level - to coin a phrase - is what explains difference in appreciation between individuals of the same perceived object. Even in nature all beauty is as realised in perception, identified as a concept, and it is this that constitutes the aesthetic experience not the material form itself which it is wrongly identified with, as in say, 'Kanchenjunga is a beautiful mountain.' Thus beauty is a principle realised in an aesthetic experience derived from perception of an object but not inherent to the object, which after all, is never perfect.

You might wonder if I am not guilty of splitting hairs, and deconstructing aesthetic experience to the extent that any work of art is merely the base to a perceptive realisation of aesthetic principle, ultimately, the work of art, not to be too closely scrutinised or faulted – but it proves that the aesthetic object is a concept, and from this that the principle it identifies, of beauty, is conceptually realised. This is clearly a spiritual experience, which explains why it is so easily associated with, in those who have faith, God – natural beauty being a manifestation in perception, for example, of the principle of beauty that is God. To non-believers, it is not surprising that the error is made of calling the physical object beautiful, identifying beauty as a property of the object.

21-Feb-2012 22:08 PM

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